Published in Febri Vol. 38 in November 2016. Interviewer: Maeda Kyuu[?]
Urobuchi Gen talks about the process of making Thunderbolt Fantasy and its characters and themes. Contains spoilers for Thunderbolt Fantasy.
Congratulations on getting a season two for Thunderbolt Fantasy: Touri Ken Yuuki!
Thank you. It was only decided right before the episodes finished airing, so it might take some time before it’s available.
I’m also curious about the second season, but before that I’d like to talk about the first season. What’s it like working on it?
It’s rare to have a production that’s this blessed, I’m pleasantly surprised at how nice it is in many ways.
In many ways?
First, I never thought I would be so welcomed in Taiwan. I’m surprised at the atmosphere at the studio, at how high the morale is. The president of Pili was really glad, he even gave out puppets of Su Huan Zhen [main character in Pili’s show], Tan Hi, and Shou Fukan. It’s such an honor. I also thought that the preexisting puppet fans would treat this as a gimmick, but they really welcomed it. …Seeing how happy everyone in Taiwan is makes me feel like it was really worth it.
I hear it’s very popular in Asia.
This traditional puppet theater is originally from southern China, and I thought it would be more widespread in China, but that’s actually not the case. It was novel there and because of that it has a lot of views on Bilibili (Chinese video site. It officially hosts many anime.)
This production started out as a way to introduce puppet theater to Japan, but we were considering a bigger market from the start, too. We also introduced Thunderbolt Fantasy at American conventions. We were really surprised by how much interest there was in North America. Puppets are an art form in Europe, but puppet animation is mainly for children in North America, so we thought there was no foundation for people to be interested in puppets.
And so looking back, getting so much attention was a happy miscalculation.
How’s the reception in Japan?
From talking to people and what I hear second-hand, people really like it, so I’m glad. Since I’d like to develop it further, things are going well.
It’s been a long time since I’ve watched something that made me so excited for what will happen next week. I’m saying that anime is bad, but I’ve gotten used to seeing it. This is somewhat of a luxurious complaint, but…
I think it would be fresh. Anime is a medium with symbols and abbreviations, but live-action puppets have much more visual information. Still, puppet theater is somewhat more 2D than tokusatsu [live-action shows with heavy special effects] like Kamen Raider and GARO where there are actors. If we say that theater is 2.5D, then puppet theater is about 2.25D, haha. But it has its own strengths like detail, texture, amount of information, and intense motion. So I don’t think you can compare it to any other kind of art form.
The story is also very compelling. The first half, where the main character gathers companions is also good, but the second half where you don’t know who’s betraying or deceiving who is amazing.
I had to rewrite those developments a few times, haha. Up until now, I’ve been given a plan to start writing from, so I would know who the audience was. But this time I’m trying to pull in an audience from the start, so I’m writing for an audience who hasn’t seen it before, and because of that I’ve been able to do as I please. I’ve never worked so freely on a project. I don’t think I’ve been this central to the planning of a project since working on bishoujo computer games with Nitroplus.
It does feel like the plot developments are dense for an Urobuchi work. For example, Shu Unshou [the archer] would normally just be a cool side character. But he’s actually underhanded…
I think he has a cool kind of underhandedness, haha. He has a kind of pragmatism that’s a part of my own professional mindset. But later I thought that being that much of a pragmatist looks much more underhanded in a fantasy setting compared to a realistic setting. And he’s also the biggest tsundere, haha. He’s only nice to his friends.
I see. Another thing that stood out was how vivid the deaths were. I hope this doesn’t give the wrong impression, but Setsu Mushou’s death was splendid.
This is wuxia [Chinese heroic fantasy] after all. Getting sliced up and killed is the whole basis of samurai movies, and I wanted to treasure that tension. I want to keep watching of Pili’s shows, and I don’t want to write a story with less impact then theirs. Their characters have a very low survival rate.
Is that so?
So I gave myself the restriction of making a gateway to wuxia and puppet theater. But on the other hand Pili’s setting matches my tastes, so in that way I’ve been able to do what I want.
Towards the ending, it seems like the focus is on what swords are to people.
The story is all about swords. Even the final final boss, Youjarei, is part of a story about swords, haha.
Swords are for killing people and your relationship to them also dictates how you live. What do you think about to write characters like that?
I think my thoughts about swordsmanship came through directly. Because swords are tools that affect life and death, I think confronting them will naturally give someone’s life philosophical meaning. It might just be because I live in a country that’s filled with temples. I really want to dig down into the mentality of someone who always carries a tool for killing people.
And besides that, swords are more direct way to kill people than guns. I wonder what it feels like to have to carry a sword everywhere. I think that’s what draws people here towards period dramas. They’re more emotionally attached to them than Americans are for Westerns. I think Japanese period dramas and wuxia both have the appeal of letting you imagine that kind of mentality. They’re at least closer to each other than to Westerns.
Guns are a cruder way to kill people. There’s no martial arts for guns.
It’s a superficial similarity.
Which of the characters have a view about swords that’s closest to yours or to your ideal?
That’s hard to say. They’re fictional characters, and I’ve never had to resolve myself to kill someone. But with that disclaimer, I think that Shou Fukan has the most optimistic outlook. He thinks that swords are just tools. It’s completely up to the people wielding them, and I think that’s a universal kind of heroism.
Honing your skills, but not being confined by them.
That’s right. You shouldn’t be too afraid.
So what do you think about Rin Setsua?
He has a twisted way of life. In a way, he’s living in despair. He polished his swordsmanship, only to find that it wasn’t enjoyable at all. I think that’s when he became twisted.
Do you feel that emotion as a kind of pride?
No, Rin Setsua is completely mysterious. He’s not supposed to be relatable to the audience, haha. He has an extreme way of thinking, so he has the same role as robots, cyborgs, and aliens do in science fiction. His value system is incompatible with normal people. But this is fantasy, so you can have characters like that.
But even Rin Setsua has to protect the world for normal people so that he can keep having fun. On the other hand, when Betsu Tengai, who in a way is an honest person, follows his ideals to their conclusion, he decides to “let the world go to ruin.”
That’s how an overpowered cheat character like Rin Setsua is completely defeated.
Is that what you wanted to show?
Yes. The strongest and most self-indulgent character letting victory itself slip through his fingers. That’s what happens when your idea of victory is too vague. Actually, that development was very polarizing at the script meeting, haha… The people who liked it really liked it, but the people who didn’t just shook their heads. Rin Setsua is a strange character after all. But thanks to the puppet’s acting and Toriumi Kousuke’s voice acting, it came out really well. At the meeting, even I wasn’t sure what kind of scene it would be. I really have to thank all of the staff. I’m so moved with everything about the show, the quality was so much better than what I had imagined.
Do you have a favorite scene?
I can’t rank them, but having said that, if I had to choose, Rin Setsua vs. Betsu Tengai was too amazing. It had amazing quality. We asked for them to put slightly more effort into the first and last episodes, but it was still a few times better than what I expected.
In the last episode, besides their battle, Shou Fukan finally gets serious and even pulls out a black hole…
That was because Pili’s puppet theater also has aliens and vampires, so I wanted to show that these things were out there. It’s not just about sword fights, there are science fiction elements too.
To get back on topic, after watching the final episode, Rin Setsua seems even more mysterious. It feels like we’ve only seen the tip of the glacier by the end of the story. I’m quite curious how you came up with a character like that.
I’d like to show a bit of that in the next season.
So you want to explore that in the next season?
I do. Each of the characters must have come to a resolution in their own way. I want to portray that. And for Rin Setsua there’s also the question of “just how old is this guy?”
I really want to know, haha.
Despite how he looks, he’s old enough to say “when I was young”. Swordsmen in wuxia are almost like immortals, their appearances don’t tell you much about them. You can’t say how old someone is by looking at them.
I wonder where he got all of his gadgets.
His pipe is like a magical girl’s stick. It can transform into different things, shoot flames, and pick locks.
What about that cloth that made Shou Fukan’s face look like Rin Setsua’s? Did Renki [his old master] make that?
Rin Setsua learned how to make them from Renki, and made a few himself.
So he made that himself. He really is a jack of all trades…
He’s a thief who’s good with his hands, and can do anything. To be honest, when I play Skyrim or Oblivion, I usually make characters like that. First they gain a lot of levels in Sneak, and then they gain a lot of levels in magical tools, haha.
So he’s based on your video game playstyle!
That’s usually how I play open world games, haha.
What about the other main character, Shou Fukan? It’s revealed in the second half that he came from the west after finishing some work there. Have you decided what happened there?
Does he have a family?
He’s probably lost his family. He acts nonchalantly, after all. But he should have friends.
Friends that he left behind in the west?
Yes. Because of what he’s been shouldering, there are friends that he had to leave behind.
I really am curious! After all, he has 36 magical swords, so he must be shouldering a lot…
When I was writing the script, it was 108 swords. But then just how many did he get in a year? What kind of adventures did he have? I realized that at the last minute. I didn’t want him to be that superhuman, so I changed it.
But that’s still quite the pace even with 36 swords. It would take three years at one sword a month, haha. On that note, I’d like to hear where season 2 is at this point.
I’m really enthusiastic about it and I do have some ideas, so I want to start working on it as soon as I finish my other jobs… I wonder how it’ll go. I don’t want to leave people waiting too long. But I’m definitely not a fast writer, so that’s a struggle. One thing I can talk about now that isn’t related to the story is that next time I want to use the character modeled after Nishikawa Takanori.
He’ll appear as a character, and not just sing the opening song?
That’s right. I want to have him in the key visual too. And while I’m at it, I want to have him as a fairly main character, and not just a minor character. I want to make him a recurring main character.
Will Shou Fukan and Rin Setsua reappear as a duo?
I hope so.
They’re a good duo.
Well, they really don’t get along, haha. It feels like a long time since I’ve written two buddies who get along that badly.
But on the other hand that gives them good chemistry, haha. I also liked the buddies you wrote in Kin no Hitomi to Tetsu no Ken [2011 light novel], but do you like writing buddies?
I like having conversations between them. Then you can have their value systems clash, too. It’s one of the standards for a story.
Finally, do you have a message for the fans?
We started this project as a first step, or rather a foothold, to spread this new culture to wider groups of people, so please don’t let this satisfy you. Please voice your demands to Nitroplus, Pili, and Good Smile Company. That’s what gets production companies moving. Our ambitions are only partway there, this is still just the first step. We talked about translating Pili’s puppet theater into Japanese, but Pili is still reluctant. Basically, the barriers to translation are too high. They said “We want to wait until wuxia is more popular”, so there’s still a long way to go. They want more people to be immersed in puppet theater and jianghu [a martial arts underworld] in wuxia. So please tell your friends, so that the whole genre will be more popular. Thank you!